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Trip Report Burma - a slow(ish) trip through a magical country

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First – who are we?
Canadians who live in France. .Being self-employed, semi-retired, we have time in the winter to get away. We certainly prefer December in the Dordogne to Toronto, but it’s dark and dreary most places in the Northern hemisphere. Our preferred approach to travel is to spend a lot of time in one place, preferably in a rented house/apartment rather than moving from hotel to hotel every one or two nights.

Timing
We still have family in Canada, and in Australia and so decided that we could combine visits to both in an around the world trip. . Since the aim was to spend the Christmas holiday in Australia, it made sense to start in Canada, go west, and end up in Burma. That meant we would be there the last two weeks of February. Starting to get hot but still comfortable.

How to do it
In the 17 years that we have been here we’ve travelled a lot, (Europe of course, Egypt, Uzbekistan) but never to SE Asia. We had each always wanted to go to Burma, for no particular reason, other than romantic ones, but this seemed the year to do it. We didn’t want to go with a group, but because of our unfamiliarity with Asia, we were a little nervous about trying it completely on our own. So I contacted a number of agencies, indicating what we wanted to do - basically see the major sites, with a personal guide.

But, since we probably had more time than most ‘working’ travellers (our whole trip took 4 months) we didn’t need to move around every day, and preferred to have some time on our own in each place.

After reviewing proposals from a number of agencies, we settle on Goodnews (http://www.myanmargoodnewstravel.com/ ) highly recommended by Lonely Planet and winter of a Condé Nast award. We dealt with William, the founder and manager of the company. We were very impressed with the service we received, except for a few ‘bleeps’ when their server went down and email communication was impossible. But I suspect this is not unknown in Burma!

What we decided to do – Plan A and Plan B
The main think we knew we wanted was a cruise on the Irrawaddy. I had checked out several companies, and decided on a 5 day cruise from Bagan to Mandalay with http://www.ayravatacruises.com/. We would be on the air conditioned Pandaw 1947, with 16 cabins, for a leisurely trip with a number of stops.

So we would arrive in Yangon, spend a day there, fly to Bagan, spend some time there. Then cruise up to Mandalay, a few days there, flight to Heho for Inle Lake, and then back to Yangon. William did tell us that Ayravata would not confirm the cruise until 60 days before, and if there were fewer than 10 cabins rented, reserved the right to cancel ‘but he didn’t expect that to be a problem.’

First glitch.
There WAS a problem. No one else in the world seemed to want to book the same cruise. We were the only booking, and so the cruise was cancelled. Back to square one – or Plan B.

We could still take a cruise, but now a 2 day rather than a 5 day, and on a slightly larger boat, the Paukan, with 29 cabins. We really wanted the Pandaw because it was smaller and older, but there was no possibility. And the only cabin available that would fit our original itinerary was the Suite, twice as expensive as the regular cabins. So, back to the drawing board.
We decided that if we reversed our itinerary we could fly to Mandalay, take the 2 day cruise FROM Mandalay to Bagan, and then go to Inle. It gave us more time in Yangon and Mandalay that we really wanted, but since it was now December, we were in New Zealand, and had thought this was all settled in September, we had run out of energy for the planning process.

Second glitch
Visa – not really a glitch, but something that wasn’t as easy as we’d hoped – though not as difficult as we’d feared. Because our trip was 4 months long, we couldn’t arrange for a visa in our country of residence, France. It would have expired before we even arrived. The Visa on Arrival had just been introduced, and we thought we would be able to use that. But of course, then it was cancelled, and so we were back to planning a trip without having arranged for a visa. As it turned out, we were in Australia for almost two months. We were nervous about mailing our passports, and thought about driving to Canberra to try to arrange the visa at the Myanmar embassy directly. But the person I spoke to before Christmas said they were so backed up we would have to wait for several days at least even if we were on the spot. So we decided to mail the passports, hoping that they wouldn’t disappear into a void. In fact they came back in record time. The visa department must have processed them in a day or two, and we had them back much faster than expected.

And a miscalculation. We were going to be away for 4 months, with carry-on luggage, arriving in Burma for the last two weeks. So we decided not to bring the Lonely Planet guide with us – after all, we were having our private guide. Yes, but still this was probably a mistake. It meant that our research during the time we were away was limited. We had Internet most places, but we would still have liked to have the guide. And while we were in Burma we didn’t have our computer, and so were sometimes at a bit of a loss – after all, it had been more than 4 months since we had read about some places. We survived, however.

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    Finally, we start – Friday 11 Febrary
    Flew from Perth to Bangkok – ‘technical’ non-stop flight where we had to get off and clear customs in Phuket. Seems like a ‘real’ stop to me. We spent the night in Bangkok at the Shanghai Mansion Boutique Hotel. A recommendation from our Perth friends, and we were very happy with it. http://www.shanghaimansion.com/bangkok-hotel/bangkok-hotel.html. It’s in Chinatown, and probably farther away from central Bangkok than some other hotels, but we enjoyed the location. Here we were introduced to the Asian custom of greeting guests with a cool drink, a damp towel, and someone to check you in, rather than a long wait at the check in counter. A good start.

    Saturday 12 February
    Breakfast was mainly Chinese specialities. Had some dim sum type pastries, plus the vegetable noodle soup and green tea. We re-packed, so that we could leave one bag with the hotel (we were in fact doing our whole trip with carry-on luggage, but figured for the time we were away we could manage with just one, and we were right.) Then we wandered around the streets near the hotel, had proper Dim Sum in a very cheap local restaurant, and then took a taxi out to the airport. Although we’ve lived in a number of large cities, we spend most of our time in our village of 600 people, and so the size of Bangkok was completely overwhelming.

    Arrival in Yangon – Park Royal Hotel http://www.parkroyalhotels.com/en/hotels/myanmar/yangon/parkroyal/index.html
    Arrived Saturday evening, and were met by our guide, Myo, and our driver, bearing flowers, a very welcoming and nice touch. Had a running commentary as we drove into town, most of which we didn’t remember. We were surprised that the hotel was so big and modern. (Although we had the printed itinerary, because of the changes we had kind of lost track of which hotels we were in. ) William was there to meet us and hand over our tickets for planes, hotels, cruise, etc. while Myo checked us in. He thanks us for visiting the country, at a time when many people still will not come, and assured us that to the best of their ability they had booked non-government hotels, flights, etc.

    William also had presents, which we hadn’t expected at all. We each received a longyi, and a traditional Shan shoulder bag. Harry immediately asked how to tie his longyi, and so in the middle of the hotel lounge he had his first (of several) lessons. This was in fact an exceptionally good idea on the part of the agency – it was in a sense ‘permission’ to wear the longyi, which we did fairly often during the trip. Harry particularly found it much more comfortable, and cooler, than North American clothing, and found he was usually the only non-Asian man wearing it wherever we went. It attracted attention, smiles, and positive comments as well!

    One major surprise in our first few hours in Myanmar was the number of critical comments made about the government – the state of the roads, the lack of freedom in the elections, etc. We had been warned not to bring up the Generals, or The Lady, but William and Myo spoke fairly openly about the current situation.

    (From now on I will refer to the country as Myanmar, as of course that’s what everyone there calls it.)

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    Yangon
    Sunday 13 February Private guided sightseeing Yangon
    Up early to Shwedagon Pagoda, but first breakfast in our hotel, and our first experience of the International Buffet we found in most of the hotels. Chinese, Indian, western, even some Myanmar specialities. We had of course seen pictures of the Pagoda but hadn’t really understood the size and splendour. It was a gorgeous day with deep blue sky, and there were lots of people, but few tourists. A perfect start to our trip. Myo checked our birth days so that we could recognize our own particular shrine. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shwedagon_Pagoda

    Back to the car, where we were happy to find that the driver had ‘wet wipes’ for our feet, and then to the Royal Barge on Kandawgyi Lake. Good photo op and interesting to see people arriving for a large wedding celebration. But more interesting was the ‘fair’ a kind of trade fair, with cars, beer, balloons, and lots of music. We took a a photo of the cars on sale, for our friend who is a fan of the huge Paris/Berlin Motor Show.

    And then to the Bogyoke Aung San market, since it was Sunday, and the market is closed on Monday. We managed to change some of our money, and were amazed at how open the exchange was – the trader was set up in a local lacquer stand, and handed over wads of money. Trying to find a silk blouse to go with my new longyi, I found that as a tall Canadian I didn’t fit into most Myanmar sizes. So we tracked around the huge market with our guide, getting completely lost, and eventually found something that fit, and cost about $5. Cheapest silk blouse I’ve bought.

    By now we were getting tired and hungry, and were offered a trip back to the hotel for lunch, or lunch out. We had no interest in eating at the hotel, and so went to Feel restaurant, a buffet place, mainly for locals, although it seems that guides with private guests often bring them there. I can’t say we were very impressed with Myanmar cuisine, which had very tough meat, and curries with not too much flavour. Myo ate with us and explained the various dishes. Then took us back to the hotel for a nap, (and a swim) greatly appreciated.

    Somewhat recovered from the morning’s touring, we met Myo and driver in the lobby and went off for our next stop – the Chaukhtatgyi (Reclining) Buddha. It seemed a little strange at first, in a steel ‘warehouse’ area, with lots of scaffolding around, but the covering at least protects it from the weather. We were amazed at the sophistication, and the size, supposedly 70 metres long. Again, hardly anyone else there, other than Myanmar locals.

    Now to the Botataung ‘First sacred hair relic’ Pagoda, home of hair relics brought from India 2500 years ago. Bombed by the RAF during WWII, it was a heap of blackened ruins, and then re-built. During the renovation more relics were found, and it is now, in the words of the tourist pamphlet ‘a happy blend of the ancient and of the ultramodern.’ I don’t know that we found any ultramodern – we actually preferred the vendors outside the temple, selling snacks and souvenirs. Much as we are not fond of pigeons here, it was quite lovely seeing a beaming toddler feeding them by the side of the road.

    We walked down to the Irrawaddy, to a commercial landing, surrounded by local boats, and a larger river boat. This is a kind of ‘merchant’ ship which brings goods downstream, and sells directly from the deck – fabric, pianos, beds, you name it. Wandered around and bought more longyi fabric, and took photos of the sunset over the river.

    By this time our guide was getting tired, and suggested that perhaps we should wait to go to the Strand Hotel, the last thing on her itinerary, until the next day. But since that was mean to be a free day for us; we thought it would be easier for all if we went then – about 6.30. The Hotel was quiet at that hour, but we settled in for a civilized drink and chat with Myo. We only realised at the end that we had spent a great part of our daily allowance on those drinks. Decided we should practice a little more caution in spending.

    Home to our hotel after a very long but interesting day, cleaned up and put on our new finery. We walked around the hotel, discovered that drinks there were MUCH cheaper than at the Strand, and had a gin and tonic while watching the world go by. We’d had enough lunch that we didn’t need dinner, and so went up to bed.

    Monday 14 February
    Now on our own for one of our ‘Free and Easy’ days, we decided to walk down to the river from our hotel. Not a long walk, and once we were over the railway bridge, trying to avoid a particularly avid money changer, the sidewalks were interesting with lots of people heading off to work, many street vendors, and lots to watch. Many photos were taken! We walked past, but did not go into the Sule Pagoda as we were already a little ‘pagoda’d out’. Not perhaps a good sign! But we found the street life much more interesting.

    We got to the river, very near the Strand Hotel, and had been told by William that there was a ferry from the Strand jetty across the river, which would be interesting. So we wandered into the ferry waiting area, where we were taken in hand by a small boy, about 10, who showed us where to buy our tickets – in the main office, rather than the ticket seller, as our passports had to be checked. While the station master was doing this, the office cat walked across his ledger – a possible photo opportunity, except that I remembered we were in a transportation area, possibly restricted. So I put the camera away

    Our young friend stayed with us on the ferry, and introduced us to his even younger friend, about 4, selling treats to throw at the gulls. We bought some just to please him, and spent some time amusing ourselves. Harry asked the young boy why he wasn’t in school, and he told a long story about having his Hmong village destroyed during the hurricane of 2008. Supposedly he was now living with his brother in the city, but was not able to go to school.

    On arrival, we found the ‘village’ on the other side seemed to consist of motorcycle shops and dust, and decided that we could pass on the trishaw rides everyone was trying to sell us. So we took the ferry back, and said goodbye to young friend – here we came up against something that would occur in various places in Myanmar. He had obviously joined us in order to receive money, even though he didn’t ask for it. Many people during our stay in the country indicated that we should not give money to the children, as it ‘made beggars of them.’ But we felt that he had been helpful, we had enjoyed his company, and so we gave him some.

    We continued walking around the area east of the Strand, heading gradually up to our hotel, past hundreds of vendors of second hand books. Most were very old of course, many were ancient text books and work books. I have boxes of books which I am loath to throw out, and it made me want to find ways to send them to Myanmar. After 30 or 40 minutes of this the sun got hotter and we decided a cold drink – preferably a cold beer – was in order. Of course this didn’t prove easy to find, as we were surrounded by tea shops, but eventually someone pointed us in the direction of a ‘bottle shop’ where we could buy a cold beer and stand in the somewhat cooler shop. No seats, but an interesting situation, and this time the vendor took our picture.

    A long hot walk back to the hotel – same money lender still trying to get our business.

    After a cool shower we were ready for lunch, and took a taxi to Theik Di Shin, Anawrahta St, recommended in a Chowhound list. It’s air conditioned, and much more elegant than Feel, food better, although the author of the Chowhound recommendations said it was the best food they had in Myanmar. We hoped that it wouldn’t be, as we weren’t that impressed. Again we were probably the only tourists, although it is apparently frequented by private guides and their customers. They kindly called our taxi to come and take us back to the hotel. Time for another nap.

    We had thought about going out again, but travel fatigue caught up with us, and so we relaxed, went down to the bar again for a drink

    Tuesday, 15 February.
    Up early to go back to the market for more money changing before we left for Mandalay, on another free day. I had vaguely remembered that our guide mentioned the market opened at 9, but since we were up early, we headed out. She was right - nothing was open at 8.15! So we wandered around trying to orient ourselves. Eventually people started coming to work, the money changer arrived, and we did our business. I was also looking for someone to sew the fabric I had bought on the river boat. Of course we’d seen lots of people with sewing machines on Sunday, but took a while to find them again, as the market is so vast. Finally a nice young woman did it for me while I waited, for about a dollar. Quite chuffed to have negotiated clothing alterations in another language. Someone else tried to sell Harry new glasses, but he figured he could wait.

    Then we crossed the road to the ‘other’ part of the market, much more local, where there are lots of Myanmar drug stores – stalls set up in the markets with piles of medicine boxes, a telephone stand for people to use, and of course lots of snacks being made. We found another bottle shop, and sat on plastic chairs watching people carry huge loads on their heads, and on shoulder yokes. While we were there the market delivery service went into action. We were at the foot of a tall apartment building. Our guide had already told us that lower floors were preferred because these buildings either didn’t have an elevator, or it was out of service. So someone on an upper floor dropped a string down, with an order. The vendor tied it onto the string, and tugged it so that she pulled it up. She sent the money down on the same string.

    More wandering, and decided that we could skip the restaurant offering Mashed Potato hamburger. We were tempted by a Myanmar pizza, but it was a little too early, so kept going. We were struck during all this walking through wide and narrow streets that we never felt unsafe. People were sometimes interested to see us wandering around on our own, but everyone was friendly – or just ignored us, going about their own business.

    Back to the hotel and we decided to take advantage of their Dim Sum lunch. Quite good, and the restaurant was cool and calm, which also was good. Then an hour or two by the pool. We had originally asked for smaller hotels, perhaps guest houses, and weren’t too pleased to find that the hotels William had suggested were mainly bigger, tourist oriented. But since they weren’t too expensive, and all seemed to get good reviews, we agreed. Once there we found that we really did like being comfortable after a long hot and sometimes dusty day of sight-seeing. (Also found as we saw some of the guest houses in the smaller places we visited that we were quite happy NOT to be there.)

    One of the things that had struck us while walking was the number of billboards and advertising for Valentine’s Day, apparently now a popular time, especially for young people. So, since once again we didn’t need dinner, and we could hear music coming from next door, we went out to check. Turns out there was a small shopping area the other side of the hotel, and in what looked to be the driveway there was a rock concert going on. A very loud, amplified, well lit young Myanmar singer was belting out hits for a large crowd. We hung around for a while, but since we obviously weren’t following the lyrics, gave in and went to bed. We had to be up very early the next day for our flight.

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    Mandalay
    Wednesday 16 February.
    Up at 4.30 to get to the airport for our 7.30 flight to Mandalay. Since the restaurant wasn’t open, the hotel provided us with picnic breakfasts, and off we went. Another interesting experience. We had been in a number of airports around the world, but none quite as ‘artisanal’ as the Yangon domestic airport. Luckily Myo ushered us through the crowd to the desk, and someone took our bag – only carry on, but we figured since the plane might be small, it would be easier to check it. She had also explained that someone would walk through with a sign indicating which plane was boarding, so we should be sure to look out for the number of our flight. We ate some of our breakfast in the waiting room, and left the rest on the bench, hoping it would benefit someone else. Our plane was called and off we went. In fact the plane was quite modern and the flight was comfortable.

    Arrival in Mandalay
    Our next guide, Kyaw Ngwe, met us and swept us into the car to get to Amarapura along very bumpy and incredibly dusty roads to see the Maha Ganayon Kyaung where the monks would be coming back from their alms gathering for breakfast This was one of the times that we were happy to have a private guide, because he not only showed us around the monastery, but made sure we had particularly good places for taking photos. It was also a surprise to see so many other tourists – I gather many people arrive as we did, and visit the same places at the same time. It was interesting to see the hundreds of monks, young and old, file in to eat, but not so much to see what seemed like hundreds of people taking photos, and handing out the rice. I have to say I found walking past the monks’ laundry - deeply coloured robes hanging on clotheslines almost as interesting!

    On to U Bein bridge, again with lots of other people. We had, rather unrealistically, hoped to get a shot like the one on the cover of the Lonely Planet guide. Not so easy when other tourists are all strolling along. It’s still quite amazing, and we walked the full 1300 metres. Our first sight, too, of oxen carts ploughing the fields. (We had just been in Australia, and walked the Busselton Jetty on the day it re-opened, 1800 metres, and the contrast was amazing - http://www.busseltonjetty.net/default.aspx ) This time we were followed by a young girl, who chatted with Harry while I kept my distance.

    On to Sagaing, to a silver shop, and thenone more stop before lunch, to a silk weaver, where we bought a few scarves for gifts. Now very hot and tired. Our guide took us to ‘the only restaurant in Sagaing’, perhaps an exaggeration, but it was good. This time he ate with the driver – this seemed to vary, sometimes guides ate with us, sometimes not. But they always chose a restaurant for us, which was a great advantage.

    Restored after lunch and more cold beer, we saw the Kaunghmudaw Paya, with an enormous white dome. Or formerly white. It is in the process of being painted gold, apparently to the irritation of a number of local residents. All the other pagodas have gold leaf or gold paint, and this was known for being white. It was an interesting time to visit, because some of the roof was still white, some was orange, the base for the gold paint, and some had already been painted gold. The painters, strung from a rope along the side of the roof, looked very hot!

    Then to Umin Thounzeh, with 45 Buddhas all in a row, and the Soon U Ponya Shin Paya, with great views of Mandalay, and large bronze frogs which serve as collection boxes – along with other bronze hares, they represent Buddha’s various lives.

    Once again we were exhausted, but enjoyed the drive back to Mandalay past mountains of watermelons. Kyaw Ngwe stopped to buy one, and also stopped to explain the blossom of a local tree to Harry.

    Again we were happy with our hotel, the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel http://www.mandalayhillresorthotel.com/ Very comfortable room, looking out over the pool and the gardens, with spa and mini temple. Again met with cool drinks and damp towels, very welcome after a long day.

    And again we didn’t feel like much dinner – we wandered around the garden and had a drink in the outside bar, but were driven in by mosquitoes. The barman put down a coil under our table, but it didn’t seem to do the trick. On to the Kipling bar, very comfortable, obviously designer done, to recall the ‘old’ Asia. But they were advertising a young musical group, The Rock Journey Band, and I expected to be driven out by loud music, the bane of our life. Who knows, said Harry, they could be Beatles wannabees. And sure enough, they came out and started with ‘Imagine’ followed by ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane.’ They weren’t bad at all, once we got over the culture shock of sitting in Mandalay listening to golden oldies.

    Thursday 17 February
    A wonderful morning. We left the hotel around 8 to go the jetty for our ‘private boat’ to Mingun. Not sure what I had expected by a private boat, but it certainly wasn’t this. We had to walk across planks from one boat to another, and somewhere around the 7th or 8th found ours - wooden, fairly primitive, home to a young couple with a baby. But deck chairs on top, and a sun canopy, so we were comfortable. And riding along the Irrawaddy, with mist on the edge of the river, seeing temples rise out of the mist was quite amazing. We took photos of everything, including the toddler helping her mother with the ropes as we landed.

    On landing, we did not take the ‘Taxi’ ox cart, but instead walked the short distance to the Mingun temple, a monumental uncompleted stupa, which we did manage to climb, for great views. On to the ‘white temple’ Hsinbyume Paya, where whitewashed terraces represent mountain ranges, and to the Mingun bell, supposedly the largest hung, uncracked bell in the world. Managed to give it a thump.

    By now we were learning not to speak to all the children who followed us, but they still followed anyway. Also by now I was feeling the need to use a toilet, which coincided with a visit to the Buddhist Infirmary, a nursing home for elderly with no family. It’s interesting that this is on the tourist itinerary, but it is unusual for Myanmar, as older people are usually looked after by their families, and so this type of home is very uncommon. As we looked around, I was invited to use their facilities, which were very welcome.

    Back on the boat to an attractive restaurant by the river, where we had quite a good lunch. By now we were usually having curry with cashews, tempura vegetables, rice and beer. Again our guide ate with the driver and other guides.

    In the afternoon we went by various workshop areas with wood carving, stone carving, and embroidery. My lungs were suffering after a few minutes with the stone carvers, most of whom were not, of course wearing any masks or protection. I hesitate to think what their lungs look like after a few years.

    On to the Temple of the Living Buddha (Kyauktasgyi Paya, with a 900 tonne Buddha, and to the wooden Shwenandaw Kyaung monastery, once part of the palace complex. By now I was starting to have some stomach pains, and once more needed toilet facilities – quickly. These were not as clean as at Mingun, but I was not about to complain.

    We had looked forward to ‘the world’s biggest book’ with its 729 marble slabs, on which are inscribed the 15 books of the Tripitaka. However, soon after we arrived, Harry’s stomach started sending signals, and he too disappeared for a short while. We decided it was better to head back to the hotel if we were going to be ill, which was too bad, as I had just started an interesting conversation with a former English teacher.

    A quick drive back to the hotel, and then Kyaw Ngwe went out to get us some rehydrating salts’ to mix with water to calm our stomachs. That, and the various medicines we had brought seemed to do the trick, but we decided our sightseeing was over for that day.

    By now we were also seeing a lot of activity outside the hotel. The manager had said that the pool would be closed – I thought he said for one day – for an event. It turned out to be a VERY big even, an Appreciation dinner for Victory Myanmar group. Not only were there tables around the pool, but there were runways OVER the pool, with flowers along the edges, and a huge stage. This was obviously not going to be over fast.

    Friday 18 February
    Before going out we asked at the hotel for credit card privileges, which the manager had offered on our arrival. It turns out we had to choose an amount, they would clear that with our bank, and sometime later, we could have access to that amount on our card. Since the hotel had a spa, we hoped to be able to use its faculties without getting into our cash supply.

    On our own again, we decided to walk down to the Royal Palace, which we had been told was not far from our hotel. Obviously not many people walk, and we were stopped by a number of people offering us taxi rides, etc. Projections of the distance varied, and we finally gave in and agreed to go with a trishaw. Very nice man, and certainly an experience, especially crossing a particularly busy intersection, where we were a little too close to the traffic. ‘.

    On arriving at the Palace, we said to the driver that we didn’t know how when we would be out – ‘but if I am here you will take my trishaw?’ Sure, we said, and wandered into the palace. There is only one entrance for tourists, as most of the area is an army barracks. It was a quiet, mainly shady walk, past vegetable gardens, cyclists and the occasional army personnel passing by. There isn’t too much to the palace, as most of it was destroyed in the war, but there are several interesting buildings. We particularly liked the cows walking around the edge of the building.

    On arrival at the gate, we were greeted with a slight problem. Our trishaw driver was still waiting for us, as was the driver of a Blue taxi’ a kind of tuk tuk. We had said to him that we were going to walk, and didn’t know when we would get out ‘But if I come will you take my taxi? Sure, we said, not expecting him to arrive. So now we had two people waiting and no other tourists in sight. We thought that, since we had already given some business to the trishaw driver, we would take the blue taxi – he opened up the back of the truck spread out blankets and pillows, and off we went back to the hotel. This time we were a LITTLE further away from the traffic, but still had a good view of all the motorcycles speeding along – including one right behind us with a toddler riding the handlebars. Apparently the blue taxis were part of Japanese war reparations to Burma – it wasn’t clear if they were still using the original post war vehicles, but it certainly seemed possible.

    Our driver asked to take us to do more touring, but we decided to shower before lunch, and he agreed to wait for us, take us to the restaurant, and bring us back – ‘you decide how much.’ So we did that, and went to the Green Elephant restaurant, part of a group of 3 or 4, which we would find in other cities. This was probably the best meal I had, with nice creamy curry, good tempura. Unfortunately Harry wasn’t really hungry, still suffering a little from the previous day’s bug, and didn’t get to try very much. We came home with the driver and gave him 5 or 6 dollars, more than we had originally agreed, but certainly worth it.

    A nap, more checking out the work going on over the pool. By now they were actually rehearing for the big performance. There were huge plywood replicas of various Mandalay liqueur bottles, which swayed back and forth, and girls parading down the catwalk with bottles. Down to the bar for Pizza Tapas, and to our room to watch the festivities. Couldn’t understand a word of course, but it looked just like any other corporate event – made me really glad to have left the corporate world some years before.

    Saturday 19 February
    Now that our stomach bugs were over, I woke up with the beginnings of a cold. We headed out anyway, found the Mandalay Hill, guarded by huge white lions, and proceeded to walk up. This doesn’t sound like much but it’s 760 feet high, apparently 1729 steps, with various Buddhas and temples along the way. Luckily all along the steps are benches, built into the wall. It took quite a while, but was interesting – lots of school groups running up the steps calling out ‘Hello’, someone washing her clothes in a cement tub at the side, people selling flowers, horoscopes, you name it.

    Once we got to the top we saw that there was a road that we could have taken in a taxi, which would have been easier, but then we couldn’t say we climbed the Mandalay Hill. It’s ‘considered a rewarding experience and a meritorious deed at the same time’ we had read.

    Then an interesting afternoon. The hotel said our credit card authorization had come through, and so we decided to splurge on a lunch in the hotel dining room. Tried a bottle of Inle wine, which wasn’t bad, Harry had a steak – which wasn’t good. I had a cheeseburger, which was. (We were tired of eating rice after a week, and I don’t get cheeseburgers in France!)

    Then to the spa for a ‘Myanmar traditional massage’. We have had Thai massage before, and assumed it would be similar. Similar - but more painful. By the end of it we both felt we had been pummelled and thrashed. I don’t know that either of us felt it had been good for us. However, we dragged ourselves out, and spent some time in and around the pool, which had now been cleared of all it construction. But the hotel had already set up tables for another event- a birthday party for a one year old Chinese boy. About 100 people to a sit down meal, huge Mickey Mouse figures, etc. Again no dinner.

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    Sunday 20 February On the River
    Our guide was coming just before noon to take us to the jetty for our cruise. Since we were ready early we decided to go for a walk. We hadn’t got good pictures of the moat around the Royal Palace, and so we decided to head directly south from our hotel, and arrive at the moat.

    Once again we were approached by taxi drivers – and our former trishaw driver, with whom we had a pleasant chat, even though we were determined to walk. Went past a local Mandalay event, buying gas for motorcycles. There were literally hundreds of motorcycles lined up the purchase petrol – I think they are only allowed to buy a litre at a time. (In fact when we were coming into Mandalay, along with lots of watermelons, we had passed stands with rows and rows of water bottles – it looked like murky water, but of course it was petrol.)

    Down to the moat, where we walked along, got some pictures, and decided to take a different route home. We had a map, which seemed to show a cross street that would end up near the hotel. An interesting walk, as there were lots of ‘nurseries’ all along one side of the road. Lots of plants being grown, and being sold. On the other side were a number of golf ‘pro’ shops. Not like any North American golf boutique, much more basic.

    After a while we realised that we should have passed the road, and asked some men at a tea shop for help. Finally found someone who spoke a little English, who told us we had come too far. It turns out the road on the map is private, and no one was prepared to let us through. So, back the way we had come.

    Shortly before noon Kyaw Ngwe arrived, and we set off through downtown Mandalay to the jetty. We hadn’t seen any of the downtown area, and decided we hadn’t missed much. Got to the jetty, which again was colourful – not only lots of boats, but laundry all along the banks. I had a slight moment of concern at seeing a rusty tin roof on the boat, which looked considerably less attractive than in the photos. Of course I’d forgotten that the boats dock one behind the other, and so I could see the name of ours over the top of another old heap.

    Another walk along the plank, and we were on the Paukan. Again welcomed with a cool drink, cool towels, and shown to our cabin which was very comfortable. Air conditioned, reasonable size shower room, and large sliding glass doors so that we had a great view.

    We were welcomed with cocktails, by the Cruise director, who informed us that we didn’t have a full complement on board, which was good news, as we had originally wanted to be on the smaller ship. In fact there was a party of about 12 German speaking Swiss, a similar group of French –a Canadian couple, and a British couple. We met the Canadian couple while waiting for lunch, and discovered they were from Toronto, living again not far from where I had once lived. We had lunch with them (buffet), and then the ship went upriver.

    Here we had the only badly organized part of our trip, possibly because of the fairly last minute change in itinerary. Before leaving Mandalay, the Paukan was visiting Mingun, where we had already been. It wasn’t a big problem for us, as we were happy to stay on board and watch the traffic on the river, the beach, etc.
    People came back, and we got to know the others – the French group was from Bordeaux, two hours away from where we live, and two other couples were from Vichy. We watched the sun set, and took lots of pictures before going in for dinner.

    Since the groups were sitting together, we sat with the English speaking group – the Canadians we had already met, and the English, who the staff kindly sat at our table. Food was good, although I can’t remember much of it.

    After dinner there was an exhibition of traditional Myanmar dancing from a local arts group. Interesting, but a little goes a long way. A look at the stars, and then to bed.

    Monday 21 February
    Next morning I got up early to see the sunrise from the top deck – only afterward realised that our cabin faced east and I could just have opened the windows and done the same. But it was still nice to be on deck watching the banks of the river go by.

    After breakfast we were asked if we minded joining the French group, who had brought their own French-speaking guide, and we were happy to do so, having not spoken much French for the last few months. It turned out he spoke excellent French, and was easier to understand than most of our English speaking guides.

    Off we went to Sagaing, and Soon U Ponya Shin Paya. I’m embarrassed to say we didn’t recognize that we had already been there a few days before for quite a while. It had been the last thing we saw in a long day that had started at 4.30, and so not much had stayed in our memory banks! So even though it was a repeat, we actually learned and remembered more this time around. There are meant to be great views, including many of Sagaing Hill’s 500 stupas and monasteries, but both times we were there it was quite misty.

    Then down the hill to a Buddhist nuns’ monastery. Very interesting – they were having their traditional breakfast, which consisted in part of fermented fish past. Some people tried this, and regretted it. We women had a walk around their quarters, which were very clean, although Spartan. We had been told that for poor families in Myanmar the only options for their children were the army or the monastery, and certainly there were children of all ages there, as well as adults. As we left they sang a traditional song.

    Back to the same silver shop we had been in before, but this time we weren’t so tired and hungry, and I found a pair of earrings. But we did realise, even with a group of about 18 people why we preferred having our own guide, rather than being in a group, as we had to wait while other people did more shopping.

    Back to the ship for lunch, again buffet style, with some good curries.

    In the afternoon we cruised, and then stopped at Yandabo, a pottery making village, where we again joined the French group. It was very hot and incredibly dusty as we walked into the village. It was here that we began to realise just how pre-industrial much of Myanmar is. Everything in the pottery making is done by hand – the pots are formed on a wheel driven by 'people energy’ - a child or an older person pushes the pedal to make the wheel turn. Designs and shaping are done by hand, by women sitting cross legged and slapping the pot with a kind of paddle. There are no kilns – the pots are piled up in the hundreds and covered with straw, which is set to burn – after several days of burning and smouldering, they are considered to be ready. Needless to say, there is a fair amount of damage.

    While talking to the guide we discovered more about life in Myanmar – that people must normally sleep in their own houses and need special permission to stay overnight somewhere else. Also that in a kind of pyramid structure, each village has a ‘head’ who keeps track of what people are doing, and reports upward, to someone representing the local region, then the wider region, etc.

    Some of the French people had brought material for the school, and so we went in and met the school master, although by now the children were on holiday. A very simple school, of course, with only two rooms. We also talked again about not giving money directly to the children – the cruise director had been very insistent about this, as they go up and down making the same stops, and don’t want children dependent on gifts from tourists. We did feel that we would like to give something to the village, having spent an hour there, but didn’t find a way to do this.

    Back for dinner, again good, and then for a talk about Myanmar customs, and a lesson on longyi wearing. (Harry had been wearing his quite a lot, as he found it cooler than normal trousers, but no one else on the ship was. I also wore mine, but of course it was easier as it had tie strings.) Quite amusing, and then off to bed.

    An aside - - all this time I had been suffering from the cold I picked up in Mandalay. Our Canadian friend turned out to be a doctor, and although I didn’t want to bother him, I did need to check whether the medication we had with us had anti-inflammatories, which I can’t take. Turns out they didn’t, and he gave me something else to deal with the cold. But his wife was having an allergic reaction to something she had eaten or taken, and I was able to give her some of my antihistamines. A little drug dealing on the side was fine, we agreed.

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    Tuesday 22 February Bagan
    In the morning we were up quite early again to see the scenery, especially the entry into Bagan, with the temples starting to appear one by one. Harry had now come down with my cold.

    When we got to Bagan, lots of people - adults and children were waiting at the jetty to try to sell us things, but our new guide, Zor Minh was there, along with the regional vice president of Goodnews Travels, again with flowers for us. He manoeuvred us through the vendors, and took us to our hotel to leave our bags. http://www.hotelbaganthande.com/index.htm The hotel consists of a main building, built in 1922 to welcome the then Prince of Wales, and a number of bungalows leading down to the river, each with a veranda – and a very uncomfortable bench to sit while enjoying the view.

    We got settled, and then went off with Zor to start our touring. We started with the pentagonal Dommayazika Pagoda, built in 1196, with lovely views. We had a tour around the pagoda, and a lesson on the differences between temples and pagodas (the shape).

    Here Zor explained to us that he been an engineer, and had had come to Bagan in 1975. He worked with UNESCO when they were still in Bagan, although they left because haphazard renovation work being done in Old Bagan did not meet their criteria, and the junta approved projects like a golf course and a huge watchtower on the site. He really was an excellent guide, and extremely knowledgeable – and even better, he provided us with a list each day of what we had seen – the only chance we had at all of knowing which of the several thousand temples we had visited. He even used stickers of pagodas and temples to mark the difference.

    He mentioned that most tourists like to see some of the life in Myanmar, as well as monuments, and so our next stop was the market in New Bagan, with lots of vendors and huge piles of fruit and vegetables. Zor pointed out that most of the vendors were squatting – for hours – rather than sitting on the ground, something they were used to but I could never do. Harry, having admired the guide’s jacket took the opportunity to ask for some sartorial advice, and so the men went off to get him a white shirt and a jacket to wear with his longyi. Much hilarity as he took off his shirt to be fitted!

    Then we went to visit a ‘typical’ village, where he is obviously well known, and discovered that the children call English speakers ‘the Hello people’ (even though we were trying to greet people with ‘Min gala ba,’ one of our few words in Burmese.) Like everyone we met, they were all extremely friendly, and the children followed us – politely – as we walked around. Zor talked about the need for villagers to have children, and introduced us to an old lady whose husband had died - she was very poor, living next door to her sister, who was lucky enough to have a husband and numerous children, and was much better off. Then to see a family drying plums in front of their house – a gorgeous site, with rows and rows of colourful fruit. As we walked around this small village, with wooden/bamboo houses, he talked about the fear of fire, which would destroy a house in no time. Since there is of course no insurance, each house has a kind of long rake hanging outside. If a fire does develop (they do of course cook on open fires) the rake is used to tear down the walls of the house as quickly as possible, so that the fire doesn’t spread. Then the neighbours get together and rebuild the house that has been destroyed.

    One more pagoda before lunch, Lawkananda Paya, from 1059, but more interesting to us was the view of the river. We were now on a kind of tributary, and where boats were taking the residents from one side to the other. A monk arrived, and immediately got priority treatment – they apparently never have to wait.

    On to lunch at the Sunset Garden Restaurant, very pretty, but fairly mediocre food. We found this fairly often- there would be lovely flowers, beautiful views, and not very interesting curries. The most interesting thing about the restaurant is that in the off season it is used as a hospital for volunteer surgeons repairing cleft palates, and there were several photos in the entrance showing the work they do.

    By now we were getting a little tired, it was getting hot, and Harry’s cold had really set in, and so we went back to the hotel for a rest.

    By 4, we were back at work, to the Htilominlo temple, from 1218. Very interesting plaster carvings and traces of murals, especially for those of us who are more used to mediaeval frescoes

    Shwezigon Paya – big and beautiful, and gilded. Most interesting for the very tall pre-Buddhist Nat, and for us, for a very old woman smoking a very large cheroot!

    And to end the day, we drove up to Shwesandaw Paya, Bagan’s most famous ‘sunset pagoda, which attracts hundreds of tourists waiting to see the sun set over Bagan. We were quite appalled to see how many tourist buses were lined up, but at this point Zor informed us that we were actually going to a much smaller temple, Shwe nan yin myaw, which was rather like a pyramid, with a long/steep internal staircase. However, once we got to the top, it was all worthwhile, as the view was amazing – and there were only a few other people to share it with.

    Home for a drink by the edge of the river at our hotel

    Wednesday 23rd February
    Away at 8.30 to see Mount Popa – probably the least interesting part of the trip. A long drive, but at least we had some interesting conversations with Zor while we were driving. He is very involved in community work, and has a web site through which people can make donations. http://www.generosityinaction.org/ We passed several villages where they had managed to dig wells – very useful in the incredibly dry and dusty time we were there.

    Just before Mount Popa we stopped for the view, and saw the first of many monkeys. (As we didn’t have our Lonely Planet guide we hadn’t really absorbed how many there were going to be on the site.) Got to Mount Popa and had a look at the Nats, representing local spirits. Interesting to see spirits who smoked and drank Scotch! We then started to walk up to the top, dodging monkey dirt, and monkeys, but half way there decided that we probably had had as good a view as we could, and my breathing started to suffer, so we turned back. Another long drive back to Nyaung U, for lunch at BBB, again a pretty restaurant. Zor suggested that we might appreciate some ‘western style’ food, and certainly their barbecue chicken was good. Not what we expected, as it came on skewers, but tasty.

    One more stop, to the Ananda temple, (described by Lonely Planet as ‘one of the finest, largest best-preserved and most revered of all Bagan souvenir stands – we mean temples’). However, I was happy to buy some pale green lacquer ware, which I had been looking for. Back to the hotel for another rest

    We were out again at 4.30 to see an un-named temple (no. 820), normally not open, with original images from the 11th century. As interesting as the temple was the situation – since it’s rather isolated, a woman was given a house next to the temple so that she could be the caretaker. A bit of a strange life, in the middle of the temples of Bagan, but she seemed content.

    Then on to Sularmani temple, with interesting paintings inside. Some highlights here – one, that Harry, whose cold was getting worse, found a Buddha that is reputed to care various ills – He bought some gold to rub on the Buddha’s nose, to try to get rid of his cough – it didn’t work very well. We also discovered, looking at the paintings for sale outside, that one we had seen everywhere, of monks walking away, towards a setting sun, had a special meaning. Apparently the generals approved this for sale, as it represents the monks going back to their towns after their unsuccessful ‘revolution’. In the same ‘souvenir; area I found some even nicer lacquer, made by an old man right there He was in the process of rubbing down some bamboo shapes with a type of foot operated lathe. I bought two small ‘tortoise shell’ colour bowls, and wish I had bought more. One of the few places I really didn’t want to bargain, as what he was doing was obviously worth much more than he was asking.

    One more visit, to Dommayanzye temple, quite abandoned, and not controlled by the government. Lots of young people more or less hanging out, and bats inside.

    Then on the view the sunset from temple no. 1609 (b) on the road side. We finished viewing the sunset at the hotel, which had its own great views, from deck chairs, with a beer.

    Thursday 24 February
    Next morning was our free and easy day. Harry decided to spend most of it resting, being ‘templed out’. I decided to go exploring on my own, as there were lots of temples around the hotel. It seemed to interest people to see someone walking on her own, and I was of course offered lots of horse cart rides. However, I never felt unsafe, wandered about and took pictures, then came home once it started getting hot.

    Zor had arranged for us to have a horse cart ride, which apparently was part of our package, and we decided to use it to go out for lunch. So, at the appointed time our driver arrived and helped us into the cart – the first time we had done this, as our other trips had all been by car. .We went off to the Green Elephant, which had been highly recommended. The setting is wonderful, by the river, but as we hadn’t reserved, we had a table set slightly back. I had their set menu, of various kinds of curry and condiments, and Harry, who was still feeling poorly – didn’t really appreciate the pony cart – had a large bowl of soup. Then back into the cart for the bumpy ride home.

    We spent the afternoon either napping or sitting by the pool/swimming. Very comfortable and made both of us feel better. Then decided to have dinner in the hotel restaurant, outdoors, and very attractive. Their special of the day was – pizza. We ordered it, more to say we’d had pizza in Myanmar than for any other reason, and it wasn’t bad. Not good, but not bad either. Another wonderful sunset over the hills. Then to bed.

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    Friday 25th February Lake Inle
    Up very early for our flight to Heho for Lake Inle. On the way there I asked Zor why the flights were all early in the morning, thinking that perhaps it was so that tourists could get started on their sight-seeing. Not at all. Apparently all the planes in the country have to spend the night in Yangon. They go out in the morning, do their trips, and come back to the city. Then at night the same thing – out, complete their flights, and then back to Yangon. And of reach flight there are 3 pilots assigned, and the one who will actually fly only knows in the morning that he will be flying. That way there is less likelihood of people defecting – certainly not taking the planes with them.

    Got to Heho, where we were met by Hti, our guide, and another Goodnews representative, who confirmed our return flight. Again we were impressed by the efficiency of the agency. On the way into town, we stopped at a paper making stand, where they were using mulberry bark. Interesting, as we’ve seen other handmade paper operations in France, but they were quite a bit more automated than this one. As we were almost on our way home we found it easier to buy a few things, and got a small parasol, mainly because the people at the stand were so nice.

    Next stop our hotel, the Amazing Nyaung Schwe. http://www.hotelamazingnyaungshwe.com/ . Unlike most people who go to Inle we were not staying on the lake, and began to regret that we had agreed to this hotel in the centre of town. It was in fact exactly the type of hotel we had said we wanted - small, probably family run, but comfortable. It seemed that most people we met were staying/had stayed at the Princess. However, after our three days there we decided that it had after all been a good choice, as we did get to see some of the town. Small towns in Myanmar are not always terribly interesting – mostly there’s a lot of dust – but still we found things to see.

    Before going out onto the lake we stopped at the 5 day market which was very close to the hotel, and which was even better than the one we had seen at Nyaung U. Flowers, fruits and veg, fish, girls wrapping rice in lotus leaves, cheroots. Wonderful picture opportunities.

    Although we had come in a large air conditioned minivan, we never saw that again. Instead we went by trishaw down to the docks, and got our boat to go across the lake. More great photos, this time of fishermen and rowers on the lake. Then to the same shops and activities that most people see by the lake, starting with young women making cigars. Lunch at the Golden Kite restaurant, on the lake, and then to a silk and lotus maker. The lotus was very interesting, as we had never heard of weaving lotus, and I couldn’t resist a scarf of silk and lotus. One more trip, to a blacksmith, where once again we were struck by the UN-automated nature of the work – a young boy operating the bellows by foot.

    Back across the lake through lots of houses on stilts, and to the hotel for a rest, and then a short walk up and down the street by the hotel. There was another Golden Kite right by the hotel, which turned out to make wood fired pizzas. Why not – so again we ordered pizza, and this time it was quite good, despite the fact that the power went off while we were waiting. Eventually it came back on again and we continued. Then found a money changer in a row of shops by the hotel, and so we were set for the next day.

    Saturday 26 February
    We had been having fairly traditional breakfasts, but the Hotel offered various regional specialties, and so Harry decided to take one. Not a good idea. There were several kinds of rice, including mashed potato with rice, and other unidentified items that didn’t have a great taste. Once more trishaws down to the boats, and Hti met us with a few Myanmar deep-fried snacks. Better than our breakfast.

    We took the boat through the floating gardens, and then to the Jumping Cat monastery. Although we saw the jumping cats, it seemed a strange reason to visit a monastery, which wasn’t too interesting on its own. Next stop the silver workshop, where they tried very hard to sell me a ‘twisting fish’ pendant, but I resisted.

    And on to Indein, with its 1100 ruined temples. We had been looking for Shan bags for children to take home as gifts, and found lots of people willing to sell them to us. So that was successful, and the ruined site was interesting, as was the walk from the boat. Harry had been wearing his longyi, which was attracting attention, and a folding straw hat he had bought at the jetty. But he really admired the conical straw hats we saw some people wearing, and managed to buy one from a boat going past. So he ended up looking very local, although I think the hat was more Vietnam than Myanmar!

    We had lunch on the lake again, at ‘Ann’ restaurant, again great setting, and unmemorable food. Back to the jetty, and a final trishaw ride. Shower, nap, reading, rest.

    Sunday 27 February
    Our last day in Inle, and we walked around the town. Went back to the market to see what was happening, and there wasn’t a lot, but still there were some vendors. Things we never thought we would do in Myanmar – buy Nivea deodorant from a local shop. We were getting low, and went past a kind of local pharmacy, so took the opportunity to stock up. Just like at home, except for the writing!

    We continued walking, found another small temple that we had a look around, passed a number of women washing clothes in the river, and generally had a pleasant morning. Back at the hotel we hoped to have their barbecue, which had smelled good the night before, but it was only served at night, and so one again had a Myanmar curry.

    In the afternoon we decided to try to get out to see the Red Mountain Estates vineyard. http://www.redmountain-estate.com/ We had heard about it, and sampled some of their wine, which wasn’t bad. First problem was how to get there. Several people assured us we could do it by bicycle, but since it was now the afternoon and hot, that didn’t have a lot of appeal. We asked the hotel about a taxi, which was going to be about $30, which was too much. So, a short walk to one of the travel shops near the hotel, and we arranged for a moto tuk tuk – open tuk tuk powered by a motorcycle, for about $6. The road was bumpy enough that we were really glad we hadn’t cycled. It was bad enough in the back of the tuk tuk. And we were correct in thinking that the vineyard was up fairly high, which would have been hard to do on a bike.

    Got to the vineyard, where they offered tasting, but don’t really have much commercial sense - they put a glass down in front of you and go away. No discussion of how it’s made, etc. Finally we found someone to ask about the operation, and she took us through the chai, which was interesting. They are doing some nice things, but still have a way to go.

    Back to the hotel, another bumpy ride, and we weren’t too hungry, so just rested and got ready to leave the next day.

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    Monday 28th February - Back to Yangon and Bangkok
    Hti met us the next morning and took us into the airport. By now we were quite used to waiting for someone to arrive with the sign for our flight. Got to Yangon, and our first guide, Myo, met us and took us to the hotel. We had planned to go out and perhaps see Shwedagon by sunset, but decided after all to have a swim, more dim sum in the hotel, etc. By now we were pretty well tired of touring. We indulged in our gin and tonic happy hour for the last time.

    Tuesday 1st March
    Up again for our flight to Bangkok, and found that leaving Myanmar took much longer than getting in. There were long line-ups, with 3 people doing the passport checking that in every other airport had been done by one. After a long wait we were off,, arrived in Bangkok, and took a taxi to the Shanghai Mansion. We had quite liked our room in the hotel before, but decided if we were going to spend a few days, we would be more comfortable in one of their larger rooms. The Mu dam (Peony) http://www.shanghaimansion.com/bangkok-hotel/Bangkok-Accommodation/Bangkok-Mudan-Classic.html. It was a very large room, with entrance hall, sitting area, huge (2 m) bed, large separate shower, and beautiful freestanding bathtub. Outside there is a grand atrium with water garden/fish pond. And we were relieved to find that the bag we had left with them while we travelled in Myanmar was safe and sound.

    We immediately took advantage of shower and bed, and thought about what to do that evening. Friends had recommended the Blue Elephant restaurant, not far from our hotel, http://www.blueelephant.com/bangkok/index.html and we decided to try it. Since we hadn’t really done anything in the afternoon, we were ready to go quite early.

    So, down to the lobby to get a taxi there. What we hadn’t realised is that 6.30 in the evening is the height of rush hour in Bangkok. The taxi driver was not thrilled to be taking us there, but claimed he knew it, and off we went. We did notice an about turn shortly after we left, and suddenly we were on the highway, trying to avoid the traffic. It didn’t work. Then off the highway, and driving along the street where the restaurant is located, trying to find it – and trying to get through the traffic and red lights. With all three of us looking, eventually we did manage to find it, but it took close to an hour, and with the headache that had set in, I was almost ready to turn around and go home. I don’t know that the taxi driver was too happy either, as he had been working from the metre, and had only earned 100 Baht. Even with a tip that wasn’t a lot for an hour’s work.

    But in we went, and we were very happy we did. A stunning restaurant, in a lovely old building, with great service. We were welcomed with cool towels and fruit drinks once again, and decided to have one of their set menus – we were only two, who don’t know a lot about Thai food (we live in a French village) and wanted to taste as much as possible. The food was wonderful, and we enjoyed the whole experience, with one little blip – having travelled a lot in the past few months, with different currencies everywhere, we hadn’t quite got accustomed to the Thai Baht. So, looking at the wine list, we confused the price per glass and the price per bottle, and so ended up with a much more expensive bottle of wine than we had intended. But we really enjoyed the meal, especially as we hadn’t had great food in Myanmar, and it was a real pleasure to be spoiled.

    The restaurant called a taxi for us, and we discovered just how close we were to the hotel –about 5 minutes drive this time, with no traffic. We had a walk around the neighbourhood, where tables were set up all over the sidewalks and side streets, with everyone eating and enjoying themselves.

    Tuesday 2nd March
    The next morning we were up to take a tour of the temples of Bangkok. I have to admit that we were sucked into this at the airport – a ‘free’ tour if we paid a little to the driver. It wasn’t a lot for the driver, and so we agreed to, as we really had no idea what we were going to do in Bangkok. We were, after all at the end of a 4 month trip, and had run out of energy. He was a little late (traffic) which was fine, as we had neglected to change the time on our alarm clock, but off we went – to sit in a lot more traffic.

    We spent the morning visiting temples, and being driven around various sites in the city. First to Wat Traimit, with its solid gold Buddha, and then to Wat Pho, with its Reclining Buddha. We were really struck here by the difference between Bangkok and Yangon, as we had been able to see the Reclining Buddha there practically on our own, where in Bangkok there were crowds everywhere. Our final temple was the Wat Benchamabophit, or the marble temple.

    But we weren’t finished – we had been thinking all along that nothing is free, and of course there was a trick here. We were then taken on ‘shopping opportunities’- - to two jewellery makers and a suit/shirt maker. In all of these we said no, we weren’t interested, and the guide actually looked embarrassed to have to take us there. However, it was all quite civilized; he thanked us for agreeing, we weren’t out any money, and had a ride back to our hotel.

    Another dim sum opportunity, in a cafeteria type restaurant across from our hotel. With the help of the pictures on the menu, the waiter, and two helpful young women sitting at our table we managed to get lunch. Then a nap to escape the heat.

    In the early evening we went out to walk around the neighbourhood again, which really was quite interesting, and found a shop selling hundreds (thousands?) of batteries, which meant Harry was able to replace a previously unavailable one in his watch.

    We weren’t hungry for dinner, and so went to the ‘jazz bar’ in the hotel, which wasn’t quite the ‘award winning jazz bar they advertised, but was quite enjoyable. Had a drink, enjoyed the music, and then to bed.

    Wednesday 3rd March
    This was actually the day we were to leave, but since our flight wasn’t until midnight, we had the whole day to ourselves. First stop was the Jim Thompson house, again recommend by various friends, and certainly well worth the visit. http://www.jimthompsonhouse.com/ A beautiful property, wonderful furniture, and of course the mystery of what happened to him when he disappeared. We bought a few small silk elephants to take as presents, and decided to skip their restaurant. We had come by taxi – again someone who assured us he knew where he was going, and then overshot the road. We had seen a huge shopping area just before the house, and decided to walk there. On the way we had a chat with a chap who said his brother lived in Toronto, and he was going to move there when he retired to work in his brother’s Thai restaurant. We wished him luck and continued our walk.

    We then spent several hours walking around this enormous shopping mall, mostly just looking, checking prices, etc. Had wonderful fruit smoothies in a food hall where no cash changed hands – it was all put onto your individual card, and read by the cashier at the end. We thought about taking in a movie while we were there, but as they were all in Thai, changed our minds quite quickly. A taxi back to the hotel, and packed for our final flight(s).

    Leaving Bangkok, I’m afraid we both felt that we would not be coming back again – just too big for us. Next trip we may have to transit there, but will try harder not to have to spend time in

    But Burma of course, as nearly everyone says, is magical. It was the highlight of our trip, and a great introduction to South-East Asia.

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    Great report, thank you. Did you find that you had enough time in each of the places you went to in Myanmar? Is there any place you would spend more or less time in? Thanks.

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    Thoroughly enjoyed your report! We also ate at the only restaurant in Sagaing, and afterwards, our guide for the day told us he owned it--had saved for 10 years to buy it. Our food was good there. Myanmar is a delight! We actually traveled to U Bein Bridge two times--just for those photos and the experience. Appreciated your recommendations in Bangkok. We have not yet been there and will keep your choices in mind for when we do go.

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    Thanks for your interesting report. I have a couple of logistical questions. Your hotel in Mandalay allowed you to use a credit card - was this just for purchases at the hotel or did you also get some cash? And what premium did they charge?

    Did you carry in cash to pay your travel agent for all hotels, flights, guides, etc, or did you make a wire transfer to Bangkok or Singapore to pay for some/all of it?

    Sorry you didn't like Bangkok. It is my favorite city in the world. Unfortunately, you didn't have a great introduction to it, spending time in traffic. Bangkok has excellent public transport, including a skytrain, subway, and my favorite, the water taxis.

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    Kathie: We used our credit card in Mandalay for purchases at the hotel only. Never thought about asking them for cash. I can't remember how much they charged, but it was percentage, I think. We really wanted to do things at the spa, and have a nice lunch, with a good bottle of wine (from the Lake Inle vineyard) and were a little concerned that we might not have enough cash with us. The hotel asked us how much we wanted, we chose and amount, and they fax your bank to ask for pre-authorization. Then they charge only the amount you use, even if you have authorization for more.

    Ii wouldn't rely on this, as they warned us that communication might take several days. For us it was also an experiment.

    Virtually all of our other costs we paid Goodnews through a bank transfer to their Hong Kong bank - flights,agency costs, hotel, etc. So we were carrying cash only for meals and souvenir/gift purchases.

    live42day - I think we felt that we had about the right time in each place. (I don't know if I mentioned that we agreed that probably 5 days on the boat from Mandalay to Bagan, as we had originally planned, would have actually been too long. I would have liked a little longer, but in fact it's not a great distance. ) But we did like having time to just sit around a pool, or go for a walk.

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    Thanks, Carlux. Some hotels will do that for a percentage that generally runs from 5%-12%. A few hotels will give you cash fro a fee that runs from 10% - 20% so I was just wondering. It's always good to know where you can do that, just in case. We're headed back to Burma in November.

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    Thanks for your interesting and enjoyable report! Hope to visit SE Asia within the next couple of years. From previous comments, it seems someone doesn't like too many details. I wish we all remember what our mothers told us "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all"
    Some folks are just naturally negative, I guess.

    Karen

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